Posts Tagged ‘an evil heart’


It’s been thirteen months since me and my mentor/friend/writing partner Kim Williams-Justesen began writing our collaborative horror novel. Although technically finished several months ago, we are now in the process of revising the final draft. Currently, we’ve been spending anywhere between two and four hours on each chapter and have worked most days of the week. In a novel that contains a total of twenty-four chapters, that’s a lot of hours. (But as I write this, we only have two more chapters to go!)

Although the final round is probably the most arduous part of this process for me, it’s also the most rewarding.  Since writing the words The End, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this novel front to back, but I’m guessing this must be the fifth or sixth time. Needless to say, I would have expected to be sick and tired of this novel by now. I would have expected that whatever passion I’d begun the novel with would have flickered out and died months ago. Strangely though, that isn’t the case. In fact, as we have labored to tighten and refine the novel, my passion has been not only been reignited, but it has climbed to greater heights than ever. I think it’s because this is where writers get to see their work come together, and can view the novel as a whole rather than in fractions. Also, the final round is your last shot to prevent embarrassing yourself before you place the manuscript in the hands of your trusted Beta Readers~ and these are the reasons why I believe this the most important part of the process.

The final round of revisions is the time to address all of the things that bothered you in the previous readings. This is where you must tackle those irritating little, (and sometimes big) weaknesses you’ve been putting off. This is where you add lines, subtract passages, sprinkle detail, rearrange dialogue, fill  in the plot-holes, fine-tune your characters, slaughter your “sacred cows”, and scrutinize all the text in search of grammatical errors and technical blunders. Kim and I currently live several states away from each other, so for us this requires a lot of sitting in front of the computer Skyping and IMing. Currently, my computer sits on a black ottoman in the middle of my living room where I sit on the floor to work. This has given me leg cramps, back aches, and neck and shoulder pain… not to mention a likely addiction to dramamine, given a ridiculously elevated proneness to motion sickness which I seem to have been born with. But that’s okay. This is where the real magic happens.

I went into the final round of revisions with a very clear, singular goal: to heighten the emotional impact. I decided that if something in the story was supposed to have a creepy effect, I wanted my skin to crawl. If a certain scene was supposed to make me feel sad, I wanted to be on the brink of tears. And if something was meant to be sickening, I wanted to feel the bile rise in my stomach. I decided I wanted to know what each character looks like, how each room smells, and mostly, I wanted to feel what every character was feeling.

As we have yet to be finished with these final edits, I can’t be sure how well we’ve done our jobs, but given my own emotional responses as we’ve fine-tuned the story these past weeks, I’m pretty confident we’re damned close to having what we want. In fact, just earlier today, due to my own mounting nausea, I had to take a breather from a particularly graphic scene and ask Kim to please not expound anymore on the topic. I don’t squirm easily, so to me, that’s a good sign.

As an added plus, the final round can reveal some wonderful new concepts. Today, I think Kim and I stumbled upon our perfect working title. As we were rewriting a scene, Kim wrote this beautiful passage that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and both of us paused a moment, thinking the exact same thing. The project that began as An Evil Heart and soon became Gallery of Dolls, is now about to take a new name entirely: Beautiful Monster. Not that a books title won’t possibly change (or be changed) down the road, but I think it’s important to have a strong title. I liked Gallery of Dolls, but it always sounded too much like The Valley of the Dolls (a novel written by Jacqueline Susann in 1966) for my taste. Besides, I think the phrase “Beautiful Monster” in and of itself, is as contrasted as the personalities of our two main characters and therefore a pretty solid title for this book. Plus, to me, Beautiful Monster just kind of pops.

So that’s where I’m at right now. I haven’t been doing much blogging lately due to the demands of Beautiful Monster (I really do dig that title!), so I just wanted to take some time today to keep the connection in tact. Blogging is a bad habit to break!  In the meantime, my third novel is underway (with a much bigger set of balls now), and due to some weaknesses I’m just realizing, I plan to take my first novel, The White Room off the table for a few months to revisit it and give it some upgrades. I predict that in the next five to seven days, Beautiful Monster will be fit to be looked over by some Beta’s and from there, it’s just a matter of fixing any errors they might find, and then sending it out the door to find a home. By this time next year, my goal is to have three (maybe even four!) full-length works circulating throughout the world of agents and publishers… and to be well into the next big literary adventure.

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You’d think that after spending the countless hours, days, weeks and months required to write a novel, you’d get to relax. You did your research, developed your story, and invested almost all of your free time into writing it. Now 80 to 120 thousand words later, it would be nice to be able to call it finished. Unfortunately, the hard part is just beginning. Now it’s time to reread, revise and rehash.

Although this is not my favorite part of the writing process, it certainly isn’t the worst. Revisions are a good opportunity to strengthen story, add necessary detail, and perhaps most important of all, cut the fat.

I’ve learned that there are a few key things to look for in the editing process. One of them is character consistency. Are the characters solid? Do they remain true to their base nature throughout the story, and if the character goes through personal changes, are they believable? In Gallery of Dolls (the project formerly known as ‘An Evil Heart’), this wasn’t too big of a problem. My main character was very clear to me from the beginning and I was happy to see that he remained pretty true to himself throughout. There were a few lines of dialogue though, that when reread, didn’t sound like him. These, luckily, are easy fixes.

Plot consistency and holes in the plot are another, and probably the worst, potential good-story-destroyers that are commonly found in the revision process. Rereading Gallery of Dolls, Kim (my co-author) and I discovered some interesting issues. Hearing the story front to back, we think we may have to move the meeting of our two characters up a couple of chapters. This means some very serious rewriting and I am hoping that once we have a few outsiders read the story, it won’t be as big of an issue as I am afraid of. Beyond that, we found minor inconsistencies. I will need to go in and add a couple new scenes to smooth some transition but that’s about the worst of it.

Another thing to look for in revisions are wasted words. I tend to reiterate. And reiterate. This is a very bad habit that needs to stop. But that’s what revisions are for. It never ceases to amaze me how much stronger a sentence can become by taking away from it rather than adding to it. Adverbs are a fine example of this… but I’ll get into that later.

Also, a lot of what you find in revisions are total surprises. When we reread Gallery of Dolls, we found an unusual likeness in the names of our characters: almost all of them started with a C. We had Courtney, Cassidy, Claire, Connie, Claudia, Cassandra, and Carlisle the cop. We don’t know how or why this happened, but there it is. Again, this is an easy fix. We have since changed several of the names.

The last thing I like to do in revisions is assassinate the adverbs. Not all adverbs are bad, of course, but when it comes to these cute little verb modifiers, a little goes a long way. In my first drafts, I never worry too much about them. Personally, I love adverbs, but it really is true that there is usually (<—-see? adverbs!) a finer way of saying what you meant without them, so the last thing I do is an “ly” search in my document. I go through each adverb and see if there isn’t an opportunity for more powerful phrasing.

Like it or not, revisions are a necessary part of (good) writing. Many people are intimidated by the process. Others believe they are golden enough that their work requires no revision. Personally, I try to write clean first drafts in order to keep editing to a minimum, but the fact remains that in order to get the book written, you need to sit down and actually write it. In order for me to do this, I have to try my best to minimize or eliminate the need to edit as I go. If I am editing as I go… I am usually not going at all. It’s a slippery slope.

The worst part about revisions in my opinion, is that after reading your story over and over, it loses its shine and numbs you out until it’s impossible to even tell if the story is any good. I think this is a good time to put the story down for a while and pick it up when you can view it with semi-fresh eyes again. That’s where I’m at right now. I need to not look at it for a couple of weeks. Our goal is to have it presentable by October, so if I take one or two more weeks away from it, we should easily be able to attain it. Till then… I’ll be thinking of the next story…

Write (and revise) on! And remember….

 


     

     Me and my friends’ Kim (Williams-Justesen) and Joe (Ostler) talked about forming our own critique group for many months before we ever got together and actually did it. The trouble was that the project Kim and I were collaborating on was very high in gore and horror, and I, being the nice guy I am, didn’t feel comfortable corrupting poor Joe by subjecting him to the nastiness and raw morbidity of our story, (little did I realize at the time that Joe has his own unique brand of deviance ~ but hey, I was trying to be nice!) Just kidding, Joe. 😉

So, as Kim and I wrapped up An Evil Heart, we both began new (and far tamer)  projects which we used in our critique group of three. The interesting thing about our group is that I write Horror/Supernatural, Kim writes for Middle Grade and Young Adult, and Joe writes Sci-Fi/High Fantasy, so the contrast of our styles creates a fun dynamic. The three of us were only able to meet twice though. I am leaving the state in two days from now, but we plan to continue the group through Instant Messenger and e-mail, but already, in the short time I have been a participant of a critique group, I have learned a good deal.

A critique group is an assembly of writers who’ve come together for the purpose of gaining insight and feedback from other writers, and no matter how good a writer you may be, there can be no arguing the benefits of being part of one. Critique groups may be as large or small as the group desires. They may be done face to face, over the phone, or online.

The beauty of the critique group is that however polished a writer may be, he or she will undoubtedly overlook some necessary detail at some point in his or her story. The other member’s of the group will hopefully be able to see these snags and help the writer smooth them over. Editors, agents and publishers don’t want raw and sloppy rough drafts. They want polished, revised material that has been read and critiqued, preferably a few times over. A critique group can help a writer be sure that the material he or she sends to an agent or editor is clean, concise, and professional.

     There are however, those groups of writers who do not have their fellows’ best interests at heart. I’ve heard many horror stories about really nasty critique groups whose members were apparently more interested in stroking their own egos than becoming better writers. These kinds of folks undoubtedly run rampant in writing communities worldwide. These kinds of writers aren’t hard to spot and should be avoided at all times. When someone works up the courage to allow his or her work to be viewed by others, I think we need to respect the vulnerability of the writer. That’s not to say that honesty isn’t imperative, it absolutely is, but honesty in and of itself does not need to be cruel. Writer’s are up against enough rejection and damage without having his or her peers standing in line to take turns crushing him or her. Critique groups should be constructive and supportive, and if they aren’t, find a new one. End of story.

Critique groups are as good (or bad) as the members make them, and I am grateful to have a pretty good, albeit very small, group of trusted writers to share my work with. It’s a disconcerting and unfortunately very necessary thing to lay your heart out and ask to be critiqued. To find just a handful of people who I feel comfortable asking feedback from is a wonderful thing.

     The world in general loves to give its opinion and whether you ask for it or not, you are going to get it. The trouble is, you have to be very careful who you listen to. The way I see it, you can divide the world’s population into three groups. The first (and probably largest) group, are those who really just don’t much care whether or not you succeed or fail. The second group is what I call the “cockroaches”. These guys will go out of their way to try to sabotage your success and sense of self-confidence. And the third and final group is the group you need to stick with. These are the folks who want to be better people themselves, and who want to help you become a better person.

So if you are thinking of joining or creating  your own critique group, my advice is to be sure you are among good company because, as important as it is to get feedback from other people, it’s even more important that you don’t give up on writing at the hands of someone who took it upon him or herself to let you know how bad you suck. We all suck or have sucked at some time or another. Totally sucking is the first step of good writing, so if you have to suck, why not suck with the best of them? 🙂

Write on.


    

      There is no time to write. If the past six months of my life have taught me anything, that’s it. Today is the first day in a very long time that I have had all to myself. The plan was very simple: wake up, shower, write. I have no other responsibilities today, so it seemed a perfectly plausible idea. So plausible, in fact, that I put off writing earlier this week because I was so certain I would have all the time I needed to do it today. That was my first mistake.

     No sooner had I lifted my head from the pillow than my phone began ringing, my doorbell chiming, and the unforeseen duties began piling up. I spent the day arguing on the phone, making plans, breaking plans, texting the information back and forth between the concerned parties, changing reservations, making amends, and then turning around and changing everything back to the way it had originally been planned in the first place. All the while, chapter nineteen of the book I am currently working on is sitting still, waiting for me to get around to it.

     I have been on chapter nineteen for about a month now, I think. I just haven’t had time to write. I am in the middle of an out-of-state move. I have a new person living with me temporarily. I will begin babysitting my nephew full-time next week. I’ve been cleaning the house inside and out to keep it in pristine condition for open houses and interested buyers. I am full of shit.

     The reason the writing is not getting done is because I haven’t been making it happen. Life is life and it goes on with or without us. The “I just don’t have the time to write” excuse is a crutch I swore I’d never lean on, and up until now, I have done a pretty good job avoiding it. I avoided that excuse so well, in fact, that I didn’t even realize I was using it until today.  Yes, my life is a mess right now. Everything is up in the air and I am juggling too many things to keep track of. My life is a whole different story from one day to the next right now. Aren’t these pretty good reasons not to write?

     The answer, sadly, is no. In truth, this is the best time to be writing. Writing focuses me, brings me peace of mind and allows me to express myself explicitly without apology. Right now, more than ever, I should be writing. I have taken too many breaks from it and they have lasted too long. My goal was to have this project finished by July 15, 2011. I don’t know if that will happen or not but I am going to keep trying for it. The book I’m working on now is a collaborative effort with Kim Williams-Justesen, author of the Hey Ranger! books, My Brother the Dog, and co-author of Love and Loathing. Kim has been waiting on me for some time now, as we’re writing alternating chapters and she can not get very far ahead without me. I have been using the world-famous “I don’t have time” excuse for several weeks now and it’s time to put that mindset to a quick death before it gains enough momentum to become a habit.

     There is no time to write, it’s true. There’s also no time to grocery shop, pay bills, raise kids, maintain a full-time job, exercise, eat right, have pets, do dishes, read books, or floss those hard-to-reach teeth that always manage to attract the attention of those wayward, stubborn popcorn kernels.

        When I finished my first book, Kim bought me a very nice silver pocket watch as gift. In that book, there’s a pocket watch that has symbolic meaning to the story, and I know that Kim meant it as a reminder of my accomplishment and about how important my writing is to me. While it will still serve that purpose, I am, as of today, assigning it an additional meaning: I will keep that watch with me to remind me that time can not be created, it can not be destroyed, and it can not be otherwise controlled. But it can be managed.

     Twenty-four hours is all we have. I do not have less or more time than you, and you do not have less or more time than me. I bought into the excuse of just not having any time, and as a result, my self-respect took a hefty blow to the solar plexus. It won’t happen again.


    

     In writing fiction, few things are as discombobulating as a surprise character.  You spend all this time and energy mapping out your story, putting the characters in their proper places, and then, at some point during the writing process, an unfamiliar personality appears and demands a role.  You are then faced with a dilemma.  Do you let the character take the stage, or do you simply bypass him or her and continue writing the story as you originally planned?  The answer:  it depends.

     The rule of thumb is that if a character (or a scene) helps to move the story forward, adds necessary depth to it, or contributes an unexpected twist (as long as the twist serves to further and/or add texture to the story) he or she can stay.  However, if the character doesn’t have any place except to show off his or her talents as a fictional being, you will probably need to cut them out.  The question then, is how do you know whether or not the character belongs in the story.  This is where writer’s intuition, a good sense of story, and a little sound judgment come into play.  

     I don’t believe any character should ever be dismissed entirely.  Sometimes, characters are speaking to you from the future (as in a book that has yet to be written) and will fit perfectly into a different story. These characters are jumping the gun, overly excited by their own existence, and don’t yet realize that their time hasn’t come yet.  Other times, a character is speaking to you from the past (as in a former character, probably in disguise, who doesn’t feel he or she got a fair shake the first time around.)  These guys often need to either be dismissed, or altered enough that they are unrecognizable from one book to the next.  Good characters, like good actors, should be dexterous enough that they can adapt to and blend into different storylines while still retaining their believability.  Resurrecting old characters under different names is a custom that, although common enough, can only go so far. After a while, your characters will become stale and predictable.

     When I was writing The White Room, my first surprise character was Aunt Mimi (this was before I started calling my mentor “Mimi”, by the way).  Aunt Mimi just appeared and in true diva style, demanded the floor.  I was terribly unseasoned then and never even questioned her existence.  As it turned out, Aunt Mimi went on to lend the story some much needed comic relief in those earlier scenes.  Later, in the same book, when Kendra Howell appeared, my mentor told me to stop and consider her place in my story before writing her out.  I was torn because while I didn’t feel Kendra had a very large part, my instinct told me that what little role she was going to play would be an important one.  I didn’t feel attached to Kendra like I did some of the other players but I couldn’t escape the sense that she had something of value to contribute.  After some deliberation, I decided to follow through with my instinct and let this surprise character play her part.  As it turned out, I was right.  Although Kendra’s role was a miniscule one in terms of presence and dialogue, she ended up being the answer to a serious hitch in my storyline.  As was Sir Purrcival (another unexpected presence in The White Room), my main characters irritating and ever-present pet cat.

    The same thing has happened in An Evil Heart, the book I am currently working on (and close to being finished with!) with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen.  As Aunt Mimi did in The White Room, a character simply known as The Thinning Man appeared in the first scene of An Evil Heart.  I wrote him and then dismissed him as nothing more than a passing face that would populate and add a little color to the book. But all along, I was unable to ignore the haunting suspicion that he had a more important role than giving my main character someone to talk to in that first scene.  As the story has developed, The Thinning Man has become crucial to the story as my main characters greatest enemy and ultimate downfall.

     Also, in An Evil Heart, there have been characters that showed up, been written, and finally, been decided against and deleted.  Such was the case with Julia, a girl who felt important but ultimately contributed nothing to the story.  Maybe one day, Julia will reappear somewhere else, but as for An Evil Heart, she will not be found in the final draft at all. 

     Often times, surprise characters like to show up right before or shortly after the leave of another more important character.  In An Evil Heart, a guy named Damien showed up right before my main characters best friend Brytt exited the story.  Damien felt very important but in truth is no more than an extension of Brytt; Damien is the materialized result of my reluctance to say goodbye to Brytt.  Damien had to be stopped. Now he only occupies a negligible slice in the overall life of the story.  But Damien is significant to me, because his appearance was the first one I recognized for what it was before I wrote him out, and that is a step in the right direction.  One day, I will give Damien his just dues and allow him his own story, so long as, of course, he isn’t so much like his predecessor Brytt that he smudges my style :).

     Yet another irritating way in which characters can annoy the ever-loving bejeesus out of a writer is to deviate from the plan.  These characters already exist and are a part of the story, but they are rebels and will absolutely refuse to play the role you’ve cast them in.  As it is with surprise characters, handling rebellious characters requires intuition and storyline management.  When I was writing The White Room, a character I’d created named Winter went a completely different route than I’d intended.  He was supposed to be a bad guy.  He refused.  I threatened to delete him.  He said, “Go ahead.  See what happens…”  I tried forcing him to be deceptive and nasty.  He laughed at me.  (I realize how crazy this all sounds by the way, but personifying these characters here is the best way I can illustrate the strange nature of this process; bear with me.)  When I finally accepted that Winter would not be swayed, the story began to take a new shape.  A better shape.  “Look,” Winter said to me (after I’d agreed to have a cup of coffee with him), “if you’ll let me do this instead of that, I promise you won’t be sorry.”  I’m just kidding,of course.  That never really happened.  Winter hates coffee.  He prefers fresh blood. 🙂

     By letting Winter have his way though, a few different things happened.  First, the story got tighter and more compelling.  And second, Winter became one of my favorite characters of all time, despite his refusal to follow the rules.  So, personally, I am all for letting the characters have their own voices… for the most part. 

     The key then, is to recognize what can stay and what must go, and that key can only be found in the use of sound judgment and the observance of intuition.  Either way, it’s entirely up to the writer.  Some will tell you that must listen to your characters without question.  Others will say you must never, under any circumstances, let a character control the story. Myself, I’m somewhere in the middle. Personally, I look forward to meeting more surprise characters and seeing what they have to say… as long as it’s something I need to hear.